Friday, August 5, 2011

Head Shaking Syndrome: Part II Symptoms & Answers to My Questions

I have to thank Kate at A Year With Horses for telling me about HSS when Cowboy first started showing symptoms. She hit it right on the head. Anyone who reads her blog knows she's a wealth of information about horses--physical, mental, and behavioral--the whole gamut.

When I had a context to put the head-shaking into, many things became clear and, as time passes, I begin to recall other things as well. Were these early indications of photic head shaking? I don't know. But I do want to write about them here, so anyone else whose horse exhibits HSS symptoms can compare.

Here are the questions and answers from yesterday's post:

1. What are the outward signs he has shown?

Vertical head bobbing, head dragging the ground, avoidance of sun, striking at his nose, rubbing his nose, distorted vision, frustration, fear, anger, excessive yawning.

2. When did they start? Were there any early signs I may have overlooked?

When I got Cowboy, eight years ago, he had several issues. One was that he hated being bridled. It took me a week with a trainer to get a bridle on him. When I consulted his previous owner she said she'd had the same difficulty at first. Once he gave in to bridling, I didn't have the issue again. The second problem I had was that he was head shy. Anytime I'd raise my hand he'd pull away like I was going to hit him. I just assumed he'd been badly abused by a previous owner. The third thing was that he had issues with water. He seemed to have depth perception problems and would get very fearful. Before I got him, his owner told me he'd refuse to cross the pasture stream even when the whole herd was on the other side.

Were these early signs of a propensity toward HSS? I don't know, but I see them differently now.

As for the first obvious signs they started last year at the end of the season. There was a field we'd cross at the end of rides--it was quite bright and open. He'd start the vertical head bobbing as we entered it and until we exited. He did light vertical bobbing in the pasture. The first ride this season (spring '11) it had magnified 10X worse. When I introduced the riding mask, there was about a 95 percent improvement. The other day when the sun became very intense and he lost his fly mask, he had his worst episode ever and now wants to be in the dark stall.

There's also the issue of the broken P3 (coffin bone) with arthritis in the coffin joint. We took xrays at the vet check. Is it possible that pain from the coffin joint is a stresser as well?

3. How did the symptoms progress?

Answered above.

4. Were teeth, nose and ear issues ruled out?

Yes, by a vet check.

5. When was he last vaccinated?

His last vaccination was end-summer last year before the first onset of the head-bobbing. I hope it didn't have anything to do with that.

6. What things give him relief?

The only things right now are the semi-dark stall and fly mask. I'm going to try out his nose net next time we ride around the property. I'm not going to trailer him away right now.

7. What things make him worse?

Sunlight and stress.

8. How have I ruled out behavioral issues?

It happens in his turnout when he's not being asked to do anything.

9. What is his pain or discomfort level on a scale of 0 to 5?

In sunlight with no stress, 3. In the stall, 0.

10. Is he safe to handle?

Not when he's at a 4-5, but he's fine being led from stall to stall and handled in the stall.

I do feel the pressure now to finish training Beautiful Girl and Cia. I need a trail horse. Before it was like I was playing at training, now it's a bit more serious. I'm lucky to have them out there. They're keeping me connected to horsemanship at a time when I might otherwise have walked away.

I have mixed emotions about starting over. Cowboy was never a perfect horse...far from it. He was difficult at times, suspicious, reactive, but after eight years of riding together I developed a deep love for him, problems and all. There was a comfort in our relationship. Now I'm going to be starting at the beginning again on green horses. I know that this will probably be an exciting part of my life, but there is just a little bit of me that is also nervous and, of course, there's that part of me that's very sad to be leaving my partner, Cowboy, behind. It's the closing of a chapter I wasn't quite ready to close. Would I ever have been?


  1. I’m so sorry for you and Cowboy. Is there any chance that with time and treatment he’ll be well again?
    I’m betting you weren’t just “playing at training” Beautiful and from the looks of the video of your first time on her back I’d say you’ve done an outstanding job. Maybe, while you’ve been partnering with a horse that wasn’t quite perfect, you’ve been subconsciously taking notes and training another one to be a better fit for you, one that’s not so reactive, suspicious or difficult and the bond and trust that’s formed with a horse you’ve done all the work on is incredibly strong and the comfort level will be there quicker than you think. - Sharla

  2. There are things that can help with HSS - hope they help him out - and it also tends to be seasonal, I believe.

    Beautiful looks to be developing into a fine horse - I think you'll do fine with her but I understand your feelings about starting over.

  3. I'm going to write more about my decision later, but I've decided to retire Cowboy from the trails. I'm going to look more at management for him to have a comfortable life. What happened the other day was just too dangerous a behavior to take a chance with out on the trails. There is no "cure-all" for HSS and he also suffers from arthritis in his coffin joint from that break. But the pulling back, striking, and inability to "see" me through his attack, make me think I'll be keeping him close to home. So, I'm mourning right now, but trying to embrace the future with my two young mares.

  4. Kate and Sharla--thanks for the encouragement. You're right about the benefits of having trained up a horse myself. My two fillies are about as trusting and willing as they come. It's nice to know that. I hope you're right about the comfort level...that gives me hope.

  5. Wow, you stated some of the same thoughts I've been having about Tonka & training Scout and Bella to take his place. It's hard to think about all that time and bonding and how well you know your horse, and starting over. But it's also kind of neat to think about the mistakes I hope not to make this time, and the things that might be better. I haven't made the commitment to retire Tonka yet though. That's got to be very, very hard.

  6. You can do this, the girls need to get started anyway. You could always give him a couple months off and try again with a bitless bridle if his symptoms recede. But then again, if he just grazes in the pasture for the rest of his life I'm sure he wouldn't mind.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.